How to Uncover the Theme of Your Story
In today’s post, we’re exploring all things theme-related. What is theme? How do I come up with a theme for my novel? How does knowing my story’s theme help me write my book?
But first, let’s talk about what theme is…
Theme is the overall message you want readers to take away from your story. It’s the meaning behind the story and is expressed through what happens in the plot and through your character’s internal and external journeys. In other words, plot is what happens in your story. Theme is why it happens.
3 Ways to Figure Out Your Theme:
1. What do you have to say about life, the world, or human nature?
Most stories start with a spark of an idea. You might only have the slightest idea of the plot, or some small insight into one of your characters, but chances are, they already know what they want to say about a certain subject.
And, for many of us, the reason we write is because we have something to say about life, or the world, or human nature, and we want others to see the world the way we do. So, when working with my private coaching clients, some of the first questions I ask are:
- Why do you want to tell this particular story?
- What point are you trying to make? What are you trying to prove or disprove?
- Do you have something to say about life, the world, or about human nature? What is it?
- What issues do you constantly think about? Which issues get under your skin? (Political issues, rape, murder, animal abuse, relationship issues, disease, war, alcoholism, white lies, infidelity, etc.)
- What’s a general question you’re always asking or wondering about life?
- What virtues do you personally value? What virtues do you think are undervalued? Why?
- What vices scare you? What vices do you dislike? Why?
- What kind of change would you like to see in the world? Why?
Your answers to these questions will no doubt hold the key to your story’s theme. But, if not, don’t worry—there are two more ways you can come up with and develop your theme. Let’s move onto the next one…
2. How does your character change from beginning to end?
The point of a story is not expressed by what happens externally in the plot. Rather, the point is made by how the events of the plot change the protagonist internally. This internal change is called your character’s arc.
And usually, the way your character changes throughout the story is directly related to the message you want to send to your readers. So, ask yourself these questions about your main character:
- Who is my character at the beginning of the story?
- How do the events of my story shape my character for the better or the worse?
- What are their flaws, and what holds them back from happiness or fulfillment?
- Do they overcome their character flaws and the obstacles that stand in their way? How so?
- What will he gain and what he will lose by the story’s end?
- Who has my character become by the end of the story?
So, once you’ve answered these questions about your protagonist’s inner transformation, review what you’ve written and try to identify any themes that naturally arise. If you need some inspiration, check out these universal themes (or lessons)…
- Forgiveness (of self or others)
- Love (self-love, family love, romantic love)
- Acceptance (of self, of circumstances, of reality)
- Faith (in oneself, in others, in the world, in God)
- Fear (overcoming it, conquering it, finding courage)
- Trust (in oneself, in others, in the unknown)
- Survival (including the will to live)
- Selflessness (including selflessness, altruism, heroism, and overcoming greed)
- Responsibility (including duty, standing up for a cause, accepting one’s destiny)
- Redemption (including atonement, accepting blame, remorse, and salvation)
If you can identify any of these universal themes in your character’s arc, ask yourself—What am I trying to say about this topic? What does this topic mean to me? If this exercise didn’t help you identify your theme, don’t worry—there’s still one more question you can ask to uncover and develop your theme. Let’s move onto the next one…
3. What’s Your Genre?
Another way to come up with the theme for your story is to consider the genre of your story. In general, each genre has its own “topic” or universal theme. So, for example:
- Action stories explore things like survival, life and death, courage, and good vs. evil
- Horror stories explore things like survival, life and death, fear, safety, and good vs. evil
- Love stories explore things like friendship, romance, human connection, and intimacy
- Mystery stories explore things justice, injustice, safety, and good vs. evil
- Morality stories explore things like altruism, selfishness, and right vs. wrong
- Performance stories explore things like respect, esteem, and shame
- Society stories explore things like power, revolution, equality, and corruption
- Status stories explore things like success, failure, admiration, and pity
- Thrillers explore things like survival, life and death, and good vs. evil
- Worldview (or coming-of-age) stories explore things like ignorance, wisdom, meaning, and maturing
- Westerns explore things like freedom, survival, courage, good vs. evil, and right vs. wrong
- War stories explore things like survival, courage, honor, and safety
So, you’re writing a murder mystery. What do you have to say about justice? Or murder? In your story, does justice prevail? If so, why? How? What does justice mean to you?
If you’re writing a romance, what do you have to say about love or human connection? In your story, does love conquer all? If so, why? How? What does love mean to you?
Or, if you’re writing a worldview story, what do you have to say about coming-of-age? What does maturing mean to you? What does it mean to gain wisdom or experience? Why do you care about this topic?
Ideally, your story’s theme is something that you can express in a one-sentence statement that describes the change that takes place over the course of your story, and specifically how and why things have changed. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, the theme statement could be – “Love triumphs when the lovers dismiss their judgmental attitudes and embrace the vibrant mix of people within all social classes.”
“You may have imagined the most charismatic protagonist, the most detailed and inviting setting and the perfect foil, but without a clear understanding of what it is you are trying to get across to the reader, you’ll never hear the magic words…’your book changed my life.’ And trust me. Every writer I’ve ever worked with would die happy to hear someone tell him that. Even just once.”
–Shawn Coyne (Click to Tweet)
How does this help you write your story?
When you know what your theme is, or what you’re trying to say to the reader, the rest of your story will begin to take shape. For example, your theme can help you:
- Determine your story’s genre
- Start to see the narrative arc or shape of your story (plot)
- Figure out your protagonist’s internal transformation—or the lesson that your protagonist has to learn over the course of the story in order to successfully achieve his or her story goal (character arc)
- And more…
Say a writer answered the question, “Why do you want to write this story?” like this–“I want to write this story because I want to show that getting close to someone doesn’t always equal pain. Ever since my best friend passed away, I’ve avoided getting close to people because I don’t want to feel that pain of losing someone again. But in doing this, I’ve missed out on having relationships with some really great people and I’m starting to feel lonely. I’m starting to wonder if keeping myself closed off from others isn’t the right way to live.”
If this person was writing a romance novel, you could say the theme is something like, “Love triumphs when you let go of your fears and allow for life’s uncertainties.” You can also start to get an idea of the character’s arc in this story. For example, the protagonist might start the story as someone who’s afraid of getting close to people and transform into someone who lets love in their life.
If this person was writing a mystery novel, you could say the theme is something like, “Justice prevails when you learn to trust others.” In this story, the character might start the story as someone who doesn’t trust others because they are afraid of getting hurt. But, in order to solve the mystery, he or she needs to work with, and trust, someone else. By the end of this story, the character might have transformed into someone who not only trusts others but perhaps has a new partner or friend.
“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
–Vivian Gornick (Click to Tweet)
Your theme doesn’t have to be original.
So, what if you’ve gone through this post and come up with a theme for your story that sounds generic or cliché?
I’ll let you in on a secret–themes are almost always generic or cliché in the beginning. How many books have you read that could be boiled down to “good vs. evil” or “love conquers all?” You could write about either of these themes for hundreds of years and never run out of unique perspectives.
Readers don’t get tired of these universal themes. They get tired of the same themes being expressed in the same way, in the same genre, with the same plot and characters and the way they’re combined.
So, don’t worry if what you’ve come up with sounds generic or cliché. Your theme will grow, deepen, and change as you get to know your story better. If you can articulate what your book is about—and why telling this story matters to you—that is more than enough to guide you through your first few drafts!
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: How do you approach themes in your writing? Do you start with a theme in mind? Or do you write a first draft and then identify common threads in your work? Let us know in the comments below!